Bangladesh’s National Election: Legitimacy and Geopolitics

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Published on January 23, 2024
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Bangladesh has successfully concluded its 12th national parliamentary election and the Bangladesh Awami League (AL) has formed the government for the fourth consecutive term under the visionary leadership of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. The questions that are being reverberated by Sheikh Hasina’s opponents are: How would the international community treat this election?

After the publication of the election results, global powers offered contrasting reactions. India, China, and Russia congratulated Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina for her party’s election victory while the US, UK, and UN were critical about the election outcome. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi made a courtesy call to congratulate Sheikh Hasina.

President Xi Jinping and President Vladimir Putin both issued congratulatory statements highlighting the deep relationships between Bangladesh and their respective countries and expressed firm desires to further strengthen their relationships with Bangladesh.

On the contrary, the US’s reaction has been intriguing and it is the only entity that claimed that the election was not free and fair. Others in the line such as the UK and the EU were equivocal in commenting about the fairness of the election. The common themes in the reactions of the US, UK, EU, and the UN Human Rights Chief include:

first, they all condemned the violence that took place on election day and during the whole electoral period. Second, they have been concerned by the arrests of the opposition activists. Third, they have been worried that the election was held without the participation of the main opposition party. Finally, they all expressed their desire to work with the new government. Are these reactions based on concrete evidence? I doubt.

More than 200 foreign observers and journalists observed the election and many of them testified that the election was held in a free and fair manner. In the history of elections in Bangladesh, the 2024 election stands as one of the best elections. The elections which occurred during the last 52 years, no one could claim that they were flawless. Election in Bangladesh and other parts of South Asia is a zero-sum game where the winner takes all. That is why nobody wants to lose an election and does not hesitate to resort to violence to secure dominance. This time the number of incidents of malpractices was insignificant.

The election commission played a proactive role in taking action against people who violated the code of conduct. It monitored candidates and cautioned and reprimanded those who flouted election rules. It even forfeited the candidature of a ruling party candidate for violating election rules, creating a unique incident in Bangladesh’s electoral history. In many places, elections were intensely contested. However, the only major problem of the election was that the largest opposition political party and its allies did not participate in the election.

Unfortunately, violence has been an integral part of politics in South Asia including Bangladesh. Typically, the opposition political parties resort to violence when they fail to realise their demands through peaceful means. Compared to many previous elections, the number of violent activities was significantly low this time. The law enforcement agencies were successful in curbing violence and ensuring a secure environment for the voters by detaining the potential troublemakers.

The US and other Western reactions seem to be out of touch with the ground reality. Why is that? We can develop several hypotheses about it. First, the sources they rely on for information are biased against the ruling party and offer partial and distorted information and as a result, the statements fell short of criticising the role of the main opposition party.

Second, they uncritically accept the narratives generated by the BNP and the Jamaat and their sympathisers about violence and the role of the law enforcement agencies. The statement made by the UN Human Rights Chief bears testimony to that.

Every sovereign country, small or large, is accountable to its people and no country should seek legitimacy of the election from the international community. It has been proved once again that the BNP-Jamat could not garner public support to topple the Awami League government.

BNP’s leadership has an inherent weakness. The people who are running the party on the ground cannot make decisions independently because of interference from Tarek Rahman, who has been convicted in several corruption cases and staying in London to escape punishment. The BNP also failed to offer any vision for people to pursue. Alternatively, Sheikh Hasina’s popularity and vision for a smart Bangladesh stole the show.

This election demonstrated that the election commission has the power to hold a free and fair election. The country does not need any undemocratic and unconstitutional arrangements like the so-called caretaker government to conduct elections. Sheikh Hasina’s government from 2009 to 2023 brought 82 legal reforms to strengthen the electoral system in Bangladesh. The international community should support Bangladesh’s endeavour for an independent and strong election commission.

Writer: Dr. A J M Shafiul Alam Bhuiyan; Professor, Department of Television, Film and Photography, University of Dhaka